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News and Features
11.18.09

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Penny For Your Thoughts

Thirty-five years after it started, the Penny University still gathers Santa Cruzans from all walks of life for a weekly salon.

By Jessica Lussenhop


IN the warm inner sanctum of Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz, past a room where a group of homeless people are tucking into sandwiches, about 30 mostly gray-haired devotees of Penny University are gathered. It's the group's 36th year, and the membership has obviously fluctuated quite a bit. Former county Supervisor Gary Patton doesn't stop by much anymore. Art historian Mary Holmes passed away a few years ago, and UPenny co-founder Page Smith also slipped the bounds of this world in 1995. But there are still a lot of big UCSC brains in the room. Co-founder Paul Lee is holding court along with Jim Bierman, a theater arts professor at UCSC, who is folded into his chair as neatly as a napkin.

We're here, Bierman informs us, to discuss a recent New York Times article that relayed the following data: people who use Facebook are 30 percent less likely to know their neighbors and the average American has fewer confidants than 20 years ago--yet digital tech users are more likely to convene in social spaces, like parks. It was as if he fired a gun in the air.

"I won't text anybody because of the brevity. That's not communication," says a lady on the couch.

"Nothing can take the place of meeting someone at a bus stop and striking up a conversation," says another indignantly. "How can you do that through a box? It's ridiculous."

A man with a magnificent gray mane brings up the concept of Second Life as a worthwhile manifestation of online life.

"What's Second Life?" a woman across the room says.

"They have museums in Second Life, the Smithsonian has a museum," he says.

"What is Second Life!" the woman insists.

It falls to the two men under 35 to field most of these questions. It doesn't take long for the conversation to meander its way away from social networking to cybersex, tech-terrorism, Baby Einstein, Fort Hood and ultimately the difference between "grace" and "charisma." It's a kind of Socratic game of telephone.

"Grace and charisma are almost synonymous," says Lee. "You can also be charismatic and evil," someone else says. "And on that note," says Bierman gently.

We certainly all got our penny's worth. And you can't cram a discussion like that into 140 characters or less.


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